Maryland’s 28-3 victory over an undersize Towson team on Saturday will do little to eliminate questions about whether the Terrapins are prepared to embark on a treacherous three-game stretch that could define their season.
One week after their most humiliating loss in recent years, a 38-7 drubbing by Temple, the Terrapins authored an uneven performance against a Football Championship Subdivision team led by a backup quarterback. An announced crowd of 35,573 at Byrd Stadium watched the Terrapins score 21 unanswered second-half points after being thoroughly outgained in total yards in the first half.
The Terrapins (2-2), who are still searching for their identity offensively and defensively, now must brace themselves for a gantlet that includes consecutive games against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State, three nationally ranked teams who are among the ACC’s best.
“I think we still have a long way to go,” Maryland Coach Randy Edsall said. “Yes, we did some good things today, but we still have to get better. And we are going to have to get better real quick because of the stretch — and the only game that means anything to me is Georgia Tech, but that’s going to be tough enough as it is.”
After the game, Edsall accentuated the positives, such as the interception by linebacker Kenny Tate early in the third quarter that helped change the game’s tenor. But he also said that Towson Coach Rob Ambrose, an assistant under Edsall for seven seasons at Connecticut, surprised Maryland with some wrinkles.
The Tigers (3-1) dominated in time of possession and outgained Maryland, 225-111, in total yards in the half, but the Tigers had just three points to show for it. Penalties, dropped passes and poor clock management prevented Towson from securing the lead by halftime.
“Honestly, I never thought they had the momentum,” Ambrose said. “They were kind of holding on the whole time. They were up-tempo, but it wasn’t like they were doing anything we didn’t know. We didn’t tackle well in the second half and turned the ball over.”
The Terrapins’ offensive growing pains were not immediately cured by the return of wide receivers Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree, both of whom served two-game suspensions for violations of team rules. There were still errant throws and dropped passes, including one by Tyler.
Backup quarterback C.J. Brown replaced starter Danny O’Brien for a series late in the third quarter and then again to close out the game. Edsall said he planned on giving Brown some playing time before the game. Coaches had wanted to insert him in the first half but couldn’t because the Terrapins ran just 22 offensive plays.
“I felt like we didn’t even play [offensively] in the first half,” said O’Brien, who completed 14 of 21 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. “We barely had the ball, and that’s on us — we can’t have one- or two-minute drives.”
O’Brien said it wasn’t the offense’s “prettiest” performance, especially with more stalled drives and three and outs Saturday that put more stress on Maryland’s defense.
“Next week you give the ball up,” O’Brien said, “and you don’t know when you will get it back with that [Georgia Tech] triple option.”
One positive was the play of freshman running back Justus Pickett, who had 82 rushing yards on 14 carries, including a five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Edsall said Pickett showed he deserves more playing time.
Throughout much of this young season, Maryland has preached speed offensively, trying to operate with the fastest tempo possible. After the Terrapins scored their second touchdown Saturday, O’Brien said, they took more time between plays. O’Brien said the offense has many ways to attack defenses — spread-zone read, pro-style looks, power downhill running game, etc. — and that the unit remains in search of a clear identity.
“When you have all that stuff, it is kind of hard to classify who you are,” O’Brien said. “I think we are going to have to. You can be good at a lot of things, or great at fewer things. We are trying to figure out what we can be great at.”
In the first half, Maryland’s inexperienced, injury-depleted defense — the Terrapins started three freshmen — provided little resistance for a Towson offense that engineered two 16-play drives in the half. But the Terrapins redeemed themselves by forcing turnovers on Towson’s first three possessions of the second half.
Before the game and at halftime, Edsall said, he started to see players begin to “take more ownership” in terms of players speaking up and rousing one another’s emotions.
That leadership will need to continue this week as Maryland prepares for a 5-0 Georgia Tech team off to its best start since it shared the national championship in 1990. The Yellow Jackets have scored at least 45 points in all but one of their games this season.
For Maryland, next week’s road test is just the beginning of a daunting three-game stretch. As O’Brien said, “It’s going to be a tough road ahead.”